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Becomes a U.S. Diplomat

powell haiti diplomatic president

When Powell was offered a diplomatic assignment a third time, he accepted. On June 17, 1897, President William McKinley appointed Powell envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Haiti, and Powell was the first American diplomat to Haiti to receive the title. Eleven diplomats to Haiti preceded Powell; the first two were designated commissioner/consul general while the remaining nine diplomats were appointed minister resident/consul general. At least six African American minister residents/consul generals were appointed to Haiti before Powell: Ebenezer D. Bassett, who was the first U.S. black diplomat; John M. Langston; George W. Williams, who took the oath of office but did not serve; John E. W. Thompson; Frederick Douglass; and John S. Durham. On the same day as Powell was appointed to Haiti, he received a second one; Powell became the sixth U.S. diplomat to Haiti who concurrently served as chargeé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic. His appointment to the Dominican Republic ended on July 23, 1904, and his appointment to Haiti ended on approximately November 30, 1905. Thus Powell maintained his diplomatic status during the first three years of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. The year that Powell began his career as a diplomat, 1897, was the first year of McKin-ley’s presidency, and as Benjamin Justesen points out, at least twenty African Americans were appointed consuls during the administrations of McKinley and Roosevelt, which was a period of twelve years.

During Powell’s first year in Haiti, a Haitian court fined and imprisoned a German man for assault and battery. As a result, Germany issued an ultimatum. Two German warships would bombard Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, on December 6, 1897, unless within three hours, President Simon Sam agreed that Haiti would pay $20,000. Sam acquiesced, yet it is interesting to note that Powell was the lone member of the diplomatic corps who advised the president not to pay the indemnity. The United States government did not consider the incident in violation of the Monroe Doctrine, and when Powell urged the U.S. government to make Haiti a U.S. protectorate, Secretary of State John Sherman rejected the idea in a January 11, 1898, letter to Powell.

Also in 1898, the Haitian government, heeding Powell’s advice, ended the practice begun on October 1, 1897 of imposing a tax on U.S. merchants and clerks. Such efforts by Powell were aimed at improving relationships between the two countries’ governments as well as facilitating American business in Haiti. Among the highlights of Powell’s diplomatic efforts in 1899 was the release of a U.S. vice-consul general who had been arrested. One year later, Powell successfully defended Haiti’s sovereignty against the German minister’s plan to create special courts to try foreigners. Also in 1899, Powell married a second time; he wed Jane B. Shepard, who was from Camden. In 1902, Powell witnessed President Sam’s forced resignation, the anarchy that followed, rule by a provisional government, and the election of Nord Alexis as Haiti’s next president. Powell remained in Haiti through most of 1905.

When Powell ended his diplomatic career, he returned to Camden. In 1907, Powell was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree from Lincoln University, one of the schools he attended in his youth. In 1909, he accepted a position as an editorial writer for the Philadelphia Tribune , an African American newspaper that was founded in November 1884. His approximate death date is listed as January 23, 1920. A posthumous tribute took place when the Tenth Street School, built in Camden in 1926, was renamed the William F. Powell Elementary School.

Although Powell’s accomplishments as a teacher, educational administrator, diplomat, and editorial writer are not widely known, he remains an important historical figure who dedicated his life to educating African Americans as well as others and for eight years served the United States as a member of the diplomatic corps.

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